NTH ASCENSION – ASCENSION OF KINGS – SONIC VISTA MUSIC

 In 2009, drummer Craig Walker was asked to stand in for a local band, where he met keyboard player Darrel Treece-Birch, who was also helping them out. This led to them deciding to start a new project together, and they brought along Darrel’s longtime collaborators Martin Walker (who just happens to be Craig’s dad) and singer/bassist Alan ‘Spud’ Taylor. After the release of a demo, Gavin Walker (Craig’s brother, Martin’s son – are you following this?) was brought in as bassist to allow Alan to concentrate on singing. At the time of the release (2014) Darrel was in two other bands, one of which was Ten (with whom he is still with today), and singer Gary Hughes helped out by engineering and producing Alan, as well as providing some backing vocals. But these guys are a totally different style of music to what Darrel plays in Ten.

Some people will argue that these guys are neo prog, while others may look to crossover, but it is honestly just easier to state that they are a very English sounding prog band. Classic Pendragon has obviously been an influence, but so have some of the more keyboard-oriented pastoral bands of the past, and every time I play the classic “Weight of The World” the vocals remind me of some of the songs from Roger Glover’s ‘The Butterfly Ball’! I think what I like about the album is that there is so little stress within it, it is quite laid back at times, but they know when the guitars need to make an impact without always crunching out riffs. They are all fine musicians but are quite happy to sit back and often let Darrel lead the musical flow while Alan sits over the top of it all with wonderfully melodious vocals. They close with the eighteen-minute-long “Vision” which allows them to musically stretch their wings, yet still, keep it all contained and incredibly melodic. Driving, pastoral yet rocky when they need to be, melodic, musical, this is a really nice album indeed.

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by Kev Rowland

FRED FARELL – DISTANT SONG – WHALING CITY SOUND

This is the sort of album that can only be produced by people who have a wealth of experience behind them, as it is full of the confidence that only comes from the long hours of playing. Here, singer Fred Farell is working with pianist Richie Beirach and Dave Liebman (saxophones, recorder), and together they have produced an album of original material that is laid back, reflective, spiritual, delicate and refreshing all at the same time. No-one here has anything to prove, they just combine in a manner that I found absolutely enthralling in its simplicity and beauty.

Acoustic piano, a gentle sax and vocals that often don’t even have much reverb place on them, it doesn’t get far more stark and sincere than this. Yet, there is a real warmth and depth to what is going on, that belies the fact that it is just three guys gently bouncing off each other to provide an album whose cover art is a perfect reflection of what lies inside. The landscape combines fields with the sea and distant mist, a gentleness that has a strength and power within it. This isn’t the sort of jazz that I listen to often, but rarely have I heard it more controlled and heartfelt than here and is something I have enjoyed considerably.

by Kev Rowland

GANDALF’S FIST – THE CLOCKWORK FABLE – INDEPENDENT

Some years ago I came across the debut album from Gandalf’s Fist, then lost touch with them again until I received an email one day stating that to celebrate the two year anniversary of their latest album they were providing a free download of the first act. A short flurry of emails between myself and Dean Marsh, and I soon had a copy of the three-CD set to listen to. I knew there was something very special going on here even before I listened to it, as there were guest appearances by Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon), Blaze Bayley (Ex-Iron Maiden), Matt Stevens (The Fierce and the Dead) and Dave Oberlé (Gryphon). The album also featured the voice acting talents of the likes of Mark Benton (Waterloo Road) and Zach Galligan (Gremlins) among others. Then on top of that there was the press release. If an album is self-released I am lucky to get a page of (sometimes) useful background information, at a maximum two. No, what I have here is a 16 page full colour guide to Cogtopolis, with diagrams, illustrations, a complete history of the formation of the city, how it all works plus so much more.

Yes boys and girls, what we have here is a full-blown concept album on steroids. In some ways it is mix between the concept albums of Clive Nolan and the science fiction stories with music of Hibernal. There is far more acting and drama than one would hear from the former, and far more songs and rockiness than one would get from the latter. In many ways this has moved far away from the concept album format, and into a full-blown film for the ears. I soon found that the only way to listen to the album was by giving it my full attention, as if I didn’t I soon lost track of whatever else I was trying to do anyway. The interplay between the progressive rock music and the dramatic storyline is seamless, with both providing dynamic interplay.

I kept “seeing” what was going on in my mind, and also wondering if they were ever going to publish a book to go with this, as I can easily imagine this story being greatly expanded. I am not going to give anything away about the storyline itself, apart from saying that it takes place under the earth’s surface, as due to man’s maltreatment of nature humanity were sent underground some two hundred years previously. From the very beginning, when the lamplighter comes across a traveller, I was hooked, desperately wanting to understand where the story was going to take me. That the music was heavily influenced by neo prog and contained wonderful vocals performances and great musicianship and melodies was the real icing on the cake. I was surprised just how often I was reminded of the mighty Legend, as they and Galahad have obviously been fairly important inspirations behind this mighty endeavour, as has Ayreon and IQ.

A triple CD concept album, of this depth and magnitude, is released very rarely indeed. I can honestly say that it is one of the most impressive pieces of work I have come across in the last five years, and is essential listening to anyone who loves good music. www.gandalfsfist.com

by Kev Rowland

Hartmann – Hands On The Wheel – Pride and Joy Music

 I was a little surprised to realise that this is the fifth Hartmann album I have in my collection, and yet again Oliver has done exactly what I expect of him by now, namely producing an album containing immaculate vocals, with a depth and breadth that is often sadly missing from this style of music, while there is still that edge to every song. They are commercial and radio-friendly yet still maintain the power and authenticity that one demands from music without it being overtaken by the sappiness that some melodic rockers feel that they need. The guys have built a reputation as an outstanding live band and has been called to tour with rock legends as Toto, The Hooters, Uriah Heep, Edguy, Mother’s Finest, Y&T and others, and this comes through in the music which definitely sounds as if it is ready for the band to take on to the stage.

This is hard melodic rock, no room here for over the top sugariness, but commerciality that is grounded in a band that can trace its influences from bands such as Bad Company, and then bringing that right up to date. The production is strong, musicianship spot on, hooks aplenty, the vocals are full of depth and breadth, while the guitars haven’t been sanitised out of existence. This is yet another incredibly solid and enjoyable album from Hartmann, well worth investigation if this is your style of music.

– Kev Rowland

 

JAMES CHRISTIAN – CRAVING – FRONTIERS MUSIC

House of Lords frontman James Christian is back with his fourth solo album, and he has brought some of his old mates such as Tommy Denander and Jimi Bell to come and help him out. The result is an album that feels incredibly together, warm, relaxed while also kicking some serious butt! Christian’s vocal skills are well-known, with power, breadth, depth and range, and when in front of a rocking band with great songs he knows exactly how to put his talents to best use. He can bring it down on ballads, with a slight rasp to his voice to bring the listener in, or he is able to ride the rock horse when he needs to, always in total control.

The result is an album that will immediately appeal to fans of House Of Lords, Robin Beck, Night Ranger, Ted Poley, Revolution Saints, Eclipse, Sunstorm, Hardline and Mr Big. Big guitars, great vocals, strong hooks, it is almost as if grunge never happened as this takes us back to the melodic rock heydays of the Seventies and Eighties, but with more up to date production and guitars. It has taken nearly twenty five years for Christian to release four solo albums, as he is a little busy with HoL, let’s hope that it’s not too long until the next one.

– Kev Rowland

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